Religion and Science in the Indian Context

During the past year I had the great fortune to spend a little over one month teaching at Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV), the Pontifical Institute for Philosophy and Religion, in Pune, India. The purpose of my visit was to teach the course “The Scientific Study of Religion” to seminarians (roughly amounting to undergraduate students in the United States) at the institute. The course focused on explanations for religious belief commonly offered in evolutionary science, neuroscience, and biological/evolutionary psychology and the relevance of such explanations for theological concerns. However, I don’t want to describe what I taught (I previously gave an introduction to the debate here on Patheos). I want to emphasize what lessons I learned about science and religion from those working in the subcontinent and contrast such activity with the state of the field in the West.

What is most striking upon entering the debates in India is the ever-present contrast between logical positivism as formed by the Vienna Circle and a holistic attitude about life reflecting a mix of Hindu spirituality and the many world religions active in India. The logical positivists were twentieth-century philosophers who tried formulating a version of empiricism based on the great success of the sciences. They held two basic doctrines. Mathematical statements are analytical, devoid of implications about sensible data in the world but intelligible in terms of their own axioms. All empirical sciences are synthetic, meaning scientific statements only count as such if they lead to some clearly testable empirical claim. The result was a rejection of philosophy and theology in the great tradition. Claims concerning most of ontology, metaphysics, and theology were discarded as nonsense because they could not be analytically self-justified or translated into empirically verifiable claims.

The positivist program is literally dead. No one actively researches in the area, though some analytic philosophers with distaste for metaphysics and theology are still suffering its aftereffects. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem shows that any consistent mathematical system will rest on statements incapable of proof in that system, and modern science has overthrown the naïve association of science with visual experience. Nonetheless, the concern with this school is understandable. India has exploded onto the world stage and will not stop growing any time soon. Science and technology are increasing the pace of life, as well as economic disparity. As science and technology hurl India forward, there is genuine concern that lack of reflection about the movement will result in great losses for the Indian people.

A common expression of this contrast is that the dharma (natural world and its laws) and adhyatma (referring to a text extolling a spiritual science – the defense of consciousness and awareness of belonging to the all-encompassing Brahman) are simply different worldviews and cannot conflict. Taken in a way that avoids the dogmatism of thinking one worldview explains all that exists, a scientific material worldview cannot explain consciousness and spirituality because they are not in its purview.

The contrast of holism with positivism is also not surprising when the makeup of India is considered. More than any place I have ever been, India has a thriving religious pluralism in which all religions are not only tolerated but encouraged to thrive. While this is false when considering specifics, Christians and Muslims can face persecution in more rural areas, it does accurately reflect the general attitude of the population. Most of my students were religious hybrids, expressing their Christian identities through Hindu philosophers and theologians. So instead of assuming a conflict between science and religion, Indians, as with the rest of life, embrace the different fields as part of something larger. Harmony comes naturally. One could think of the attitude as involving three concentric circles. The innermost is the realm of dogmatic religions that conflict with the next circle, scientific findings. The outermost circle is the place of spirituality, seen as embracing the inner circle of science but not its positivist interpretation. It is its supplement to a full view of reality. Furthermore, as my brief reference to adhyatma indicated, many believe this extra empirical realm can be “seen” because it has been found by spiritual experts in a fashion not unlike that a physicist takes to finding new particles.

I suggest that in their rejection of the Vienna Circle, Indians share a concern present in Western religion and science: the need to liberate philosophy and theology from over specialization. Theologians want colleagues to emerge from their conceptual cul-de-sacs and engage scientific findings. They want scientists to do the same and learn about the philosophical grounding and theological wondering implied by scientific work.

Paralleling this concern about specialization are two institutions promoting the interface of science and religion in India. The Association of Science, Society and Religion (ASSR) is housed at JDV where I was teaching and focuses on how theological claims (largely Christian and Hindu, with some Buddhism to be found) relate to science. The Institute of Science and Religion (ISR) is technically located at a different seminary, but many of its activities are now in collaboration with the ASSR to aid in funding and publicity. The ISR’s defining mark is its regular journal, Omega – Indian Journal of Science and Religion, which focuses on philosophy of science, scientific studies of religion, and the general academic study of religion more than the ASSR. These organizations are roughly analogous to the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) in Berkeley, CA which publishes the journal Theology and Science, and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science in Chicago which published Zygon, a journal focused more on philosophical and scientific work.

The problem with this holism is an air of arbitrariness lurking within. The view can be called holism, a name that seems to indicate an embrace of all and rejection of nothing, but arguing that science is limited differs from providing positive reasons for something more being real. There is a danger that having such holism as one’s natural view leads too quickly to flights of fancy; catapulting one past empirical knowledge of the material basis of our lives right into an interpretation of matter as a manifestation of the spiritual. Next week, when everyone is discussing Christianity and Easter, we will examine this holism in more detail and get a look at how Indian philosophers are handling the internal tensions of their pluralism and relating that position to practical concerns over the advance of science.

POPULAR AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
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  • M. Thomas Thangaraj

    I really enjoyed reading this, given the fact that I have not worked much in the area of science and religion at all. It is very instructive and enlightening to know the kind of issues one needs to face with regard to the question of the relation between theology and science. I look forward to reading more as Ben continues this discussion. Thank you.

  • Kuruvilla SJ

    Dear Benjamin, glad to read of your experience with science and religion in Pune. It has brought to me fresh memories of your presence with us.
    We are keeping fine. All the best.